The salmon fly

Michael Daunt looks at the history of the salmon fly. Flies tied and photographed by Lloyd Lutes.

Jock Scott and Green Highlander, Mar Lodge and Silver Grey; classic salmon flies which evoke nostalgia for those of us of a certain age. When I first started fly-tying, at the age of eight, I spent hours marrying up the fibres of the various feathers to make the wings for these flies. For in that faraway time, these were the traditional built feather-wing flies that we were told were necessary to catch a salmon. Nowadays, nearly all the birds from which the feathers came to make these flies are on the world protected list or are illegal to import. In those days nobody used hair-wing flies, which, of course, are simple and cheap to tie. We all fished with these elaborate, expensive concoctions which, I have no doubt, are not as effective as our modern lures anyway.

But aesthetically, there is no comparison. The difference is as great as that between a Regency buck and a chimney sweep. They are exquisite creations, have such beautiful names and yet their history is one of snobbery, power, dishonesty and calumny.

The story really starts in about 1820 with a man called John Colquhoun, who lived by Loch Lomond and was an aristocrat and the head of his clan. Colquhoun fished all over Scotland. And he only used one fly, but in different sizes. And it was made from the feathers of the glede, or red kite, as it is now known. He exhorted his followers to shoot and obtain as many feathers from this bird as possible as it was becoming exceedingly rare and before it became extinct!

A more thinking man, and one who had great influence on salmon fishing, was William Scrope of Kelso, who was the leading fly-tier in about 1850 and wrote the then classic book on the sport of salmon fishing, Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing. He used only six flies, among which were ones with such esoteric names as Meg with a Muckle in her Mouth and Meg in her Braws. These were tied on large hooks and used chicken, buzzard and bittern feathers. They were fished with a sunk line and were great killers - possibly because, in that gentle age, there were so many salmon in the rivers. Scrope had a flourishing business at that time and nearly all the aristocracy who fished in Scotland bought their flies from him.

In 1867 however, a man called Francis Francis became fishing editor of the The Field. Francis was not the surname with which he was born - he arrived in the world as Francis Morgan but he had an uncle called Francis, an exceedingly rich man, who said that if he changed his name he would leave him everything in his will. This Francis did with alacrity.

In the late 19th century and well into the 20th, The Field was the only clarion of the countryside and, in that much more rural age, was an immensely dominant publication. It was published weekly and the fishing editor was an extremely powerful man. Francis used his position completely to influence the world of salmon flies and their tying. He informed his foolish readers that the salmon had grown wise to, and was tired of, the old-fashioned flies as tied by Scrope and would be unlikely to take them. What they would fall for, Francis told the world, were the new flies which he personally recommended. In his tome, A Book on Angling, he wrote: “The fish have undergone a complete change in their taste (on Tweed) since I was there; for when I was there they preferred a sober coloured fly but of late years they prefer showy ones.” These flies needed numerous rare and exotic feathers with which to tie them. The Jock Scott, for instance, in its full classical glory, requires no less than 28 different materials to tie and these do not include the hook or the tying silk.

Francis had found, whilst visiting Ireland, that the feathers of such birds as blue chatterer, blue macaw, Indian crow, toucan, and jungle cock, to name but a few, were being imported into the west coast ports and that Rogan's of Ballyshannon, which was founded in 1830, made the best flies available. Soon, to supply the new demand, three different Irish families had set up shop in Ballyshannon.

Because of his enormous influence over the sportsmen of that age, everyone believed what he wrote and poor Scrope was fast driven out of business. In an ill disguised swipe at Scrope, Francis wrote: “There are many persons who hold that half a dozen flies are enough to kill salmon on any river in the kingdom and who despise the use of such an extended list of flies. To such irreverent scoffers and heretical unbelievers I have nothing to say. Let them indulge in their repertoire of a bit of old turkey carpet and a live barn door rooster.” 

Francis imported these Irish-tied flies into Britain and they were sold through the now defunct London Salmon Fishers Club. The most expensive of these cost the ridiculous sum of ten shillings, which nowadays would be the equivalent of £10 per fly. He also wrote that each river demanded a different fly and set up fly-tiers in various parts of Scotland to cater for this artificial and unnecessary market. For instance, on the rivers Nith and the Annan, Francis wrote that the salmon would best succumb to flies made with Brown Turkey! Despite the astronomical prices of these lures and the complexity of their design, the gullible and ever optimistic salmon fishing fraternity could not buy enough. Francis did not act in this almost criminal deceit for financial gain as he did not need the money; he had plenty of private income from his change of name inheritance. His actions undoubtedly increased the circulation of The Field, which would have enhanced the one thing with which Francis was besotted, which was power. He revelled in the adoration of the aristocratic fisherman and their innocent belief in his apparent knowledge. He was invited to all the best rivers and country house parties. He dined with dukes and lunched with earls. He was the darling of country society and he revelled in every ill-deserved moment of it. He died a contented and fulfilled man and almost certainly went to his grave believing his own nonsense.

Francis's influence continued for the next 50 years which does not say a great deal for the originality of thought of the salmon fishermen of that era but a rather more about their conservative behaviour. Yet this age was the cream of salmon fishing on all the British and Norwegian rivers and enormous catches and monster fish were recorded, particularly in the 1920s.

The exquisitely built feather-wing flies continued into the 1950s when three men saw the idiocy of using these costly flies which were also ensuring the rapid decline of some of the world's rarest birds. Hugh Falkus, Arthur Oglesby and Richard Waddington, those giants of British 20th century salmon fishing. They began to use hair-wing salmon flies and to write about them. They quickly found that these flies were equally as effective, if not more so, than their gaudy cousins, were far cheaper to make and considerably less destructive to wildlife. But it really all came about by mistake.

Hugh Falkus had gone for a day's fishing on the Dee. When he arrived on the riverbank in the morning, he discovered to his annoyance that he had left his fly boxes behind. The river was in perfect ply after a spring spate and he was not going to waste time driving to fishing tackle shops to buy new flies. In his lapel he had an old eel hook and he had his black Labrador, Prince, for company. He cut some hair from Prince's neck as a wing but what could he use as tying silk? At that moment he spotted a pretty girl walking along the riverbank. Hugh was always charming and he was also very handsome. Women adored him. He explained his needs and the girl laughingly disappeared into the bushes. Two minutes later she reappeared with some nylon thread from her knickers. The Dee Special was born and that was the end of eighty years of idiocy. 

It is easy to write disparagingly of Francis and yet how many of us would not have succumbed to these temptations? Francis was a man of the Victorian middle classes and to have been revered and feted by the British aristocracy of that time must have been wonderful for him.

What is extraordinary is that his influence lasted for as long as it did. However, with the enormous amount of salmon which in those halcyon days swam in British waters, it would have been easy to think that paradise was immortal and that there was no need for change. If some modern guru wrote that the hairs from around the pubic area of a cat were guaranteed to take a salmon and sold them at vast cost, I wonder how many of our modern fishing fraternity would fall for it? He could even call the fly ‘The Pussy Killer' for it would certainly affect the well-being of the cat population.

Michael Daunt runs The Hugh Falkus School of Spey Casting.

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